UPS inching closer to fleetwide ADS-B use

 - April 30, 2010, 11:13 AM

Ten years ago, in 2000, a slide presentation at a Washington aviation conference illustrated 12 distinct benefits of ADS-B: the “backbone of NextGen,” as it was later to be called by the FAA. But the presenter wasn’t an FAA official. It was UPS 747 Capt. Karen Lee, and her presentation followed industry ADS-B briefings given over the previous two years by the then UPS director of flight operations Capt. Bob Hilb, who had already demonstrated ADS-B’s capabilities with a group of UPS and FedEx 727s, including in-trail self-separation under radar monitoring at Louisville, at night.

While the FAA launched its Alaska Capstone ADS-B evaluation in 2000, primarily with small commercial aircraft on local flights, UPS was already promoting advanced applications such as self-separation and controlled descents, as well as airport surface safety benefits. Indeed, so convinced was UPS that ADS-B was the system of the future that it soon acquired 2Morrow, Capstone’s ADS-B avionics supplier, and contracted with Phoenix-based Aviation Communications and Surveillance Systems (ACSS) for a suite of ADS-B cockpit applications.

Things have come a long way since the Capstone days, of course, but without UPS’ pioneering initiative, ADS-B might still be regarded as a potential regional system, but probably unsuitable for widespread adoption. One senior FAA official, now retired, publicly stated in 2001 that while the system might offer benefits in remote areas such as Alaska, it would never be acceptable in the lower 48 states. He would
be astonished today to learn that UPS–the nation’s ninth largest airline– had installed ADS-B-out avionics in every one of its 211 aircraft, with 107 of them already upgraded to ADS-B-in. (During a recent visit to the company’s aviation division headquarters in Louisville, Ky., AIN learned that but for the world economic turndown, all of its aircraft would probably now be ADS-B-in equipped.) What’s more, the airline broke industry precedent by not only choosing ADS-B many years before an FAA mandate, but it had done so even before the agency had published its final carriage rule.

For UPS, however, ADS-B-in is still not enough, and neither are today’s continuous descent approaches (CDAs). As the world economy slowly recovers, the company’s aim is to standardize what it describes unofficially as “NextGen CDAs.” These use ADS-B-in to identify inbound aircraft from as far as 200 miles out, after which the ACSS SafeRoute system gradually merges them into a single, time-sequenced stream to the runway. Pilots simply insert the ID of the aircraft they are to follow, plus the waypoint at which the aircraft merge into the final stream, and the required in-trail time spacing–currently 145 seconds–and from then on follow the speed and tracking commands of a centrally located ADS-B guidance display, while monitoring the overall situation on their individual Astronautics Class 3 EFBs.

During the descent to final approach, visual contact with the preceding aircraft may be temporarily lost, which could, at lower altitudes, call for a missed approach.

However, the FAA has approved UPS use of the EFBs (otherwise known as cockpit displays of traffic information [CDTI]) in a CDTI assisted visual separation mode, to continue the approach. After landing, the SafeRoute program automatically switches to its surface area movement management (SAMM) mode, displaying the airport runways and taxiways, plus the location of all ADS-B-equipped aircraft and vehicles.

UPS has equipped six 757s and five 767s with SafeRoute with excellent results. It plans to equip the whole fleet as economic conditions improve. Credit must also go to the company for its early involvement of its Independent Pilots Association and the local FAA Tracon in the development and implementation of ADS-B and SafeRoute.     

Why UPS Needs ADS-B Now

The UPS corporate tagline includes the phrase “Synchronizing the world of commerce.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more synchronized operation than that at UPS. Every night, more than 100 freighters–a mix of Boeing 747s, 757s, 767s, Airbus 300s and MD-11s–head toward Louisville, Ky., from all points of the compass, laden with shipments to equally diverse onward destinations.

Upon their arrival–ideally three minutes apart based on company-directed release times from their departure airports–aircraft are unloaded and their contents whisked into a vast sort building, where an advanced automation system identifies each package’s destination and then sends it, over an enormous network of computer-controlled conveyor belts, to the point where similarly destined shipments are assembled and then loaded into an outbound aircraft. But that aircraft can’t depart until the last inbound arrives at 0215, is unloaded and its contents sorted and distributed to the waiting outbounds. And all the time, the clock is counting down to 0315, when the first departure is scheduled, followed by the rest of the fleet. Given the precision required, it’s no wonder UPS is eager to adopt ADS-B technology across its aircraft fleet.

Control of the whole activity resides in the company’s global operations center, where more than 100 people surround a raised system operations cab called
“The Bridge.” Contingency staff handle, or preferably forestall, problems, with one technique being familiar to former military pilots. Across the UPS network, 14 “hot spare” aircraft are strategically positioned to cover last-minute unserviceabilities. Already pre-flighted by their crews, the hot spare replacements can be loaded and airborne within 30 minutes, to maintain the schedule.